Kestrel took a circuitous route back toward Gabriel's place. She wasn't sure why, exactly, but as she drove through city streets after leaving Izzy's, she found that she wasn't in an enormous hurry to reach her destination. Was she afraid that he would be home, she wondered, or that he wouldn't?
She wouldn't have given it up for the world now, but her friendship with Gabriel had certainly complicated her life. Complication wasn't a bad thing—especially after her team had been killed and her entire life thrown into turmoil, it had been good to have something to concentrate on and to keep her too busy to think too hard about her grief—but it did make for quite a few experiences that she had never expected to have.
One of those was her confusion about her feelings for Gabriel. Sometimes, especially when they were out somewhere together and other people—especially but not exclusively women—were staring at him in open admiration, she felt desire for him so strong that it was hard to ignore. Other times, when they were doing any of the "buddy" activities he liked so much, such as going to sporting events or jetting around the world in search of good restaurants, she felt like he was the best friend anyone could ever hope to have—funny, amused, wise, entertaining, and always ready to try something just because it looked like fun. Still other times, especially when they were alone together, her tiny and unformed maternal instinct poked its head up, causing her to feel a little bit like she should be taking care of this young man who seemed too fragile and unreal to exist in a world full of corruption and crime and hatred. Occasionally she even wondered why someone like him would want to spend as much time as he did with someone like her; after all, he was a magical creature, a multi-thousand-year-old being who remembered things that had occurred before the dawn of recorded history, while she was just a kid from Boston, a former corp brat-turned-samurai with nothing particularly remarkable about her.
Except that she had saved a dragon's life, and in the process changed hers forever.
She sighed, stepping a little harder on the accelerator. She didn't know what she was afraid of, but she was afraid nonetheless. Part of it, she was sure, was that she was used to situations she could affect. With her cyber-enhanced speed and weapons prowess, not to mention her years of experience in the shadows and her sharp mind, she usually found that problems were things that she could analyze and, either alone or with the help of her fellow trained team members, deal with satisfactorily. Now, with Gabriel's problem, she felt like a first-grader who had suddenly been elevated to a college level calculus class and been expected to perform adequately there when she didn't even understand what it was they wanted her to do.
In all fairness to Gabriel, he had not asked her to try to help him. In fact, he had asked her not to try to help him. She knew he was trying to protect her, but she also suspected that it was his diplomatic way of telling her that regardless of her desire to help, there was simply nothing in this situation for which her capabilities would be useful. He never talked down to her or brought the vast gulf between their levels of experience and power out in the open, but sometimes he just had to gently remind her that there were things that she couldn't solve no matter how hard she tried or no matter how much she wanted to.
She wasn't heading over there because she wanted to try to help him solve his problem, though. If that had been all she'd wanted, she wouldn't have bothered. No, there was more to it than that. She would have done the same thing for Ocelot, or for any of her team members if they'd still been alive. Sometimes being someone's friend just meant that you had to check up on them and make sure they were okay when they were going through a tough time. It didn't matter if the friend was a teammate or a Great Dragon—the philosophy was the same. She didn't think grief was in any significant way different for a dragon than it was for a human: it hurt just as bad either way.
She reached his floor in a kind of autopilot, realizing that she had not even checked to see if his car was there. Chances were pretty good that he wouldn't be there either; he was probably off somewhere searching for clues to the identity of his friend's murderer. Oh, well, she thought, if he isn't home I'll just call Ocelot and we'll pretend this whole thing never happened. Gabriel never even has to find out I was here.
She knocked on the door.
There was no answer.
Waiting a few seconds, she knocked again a little harder. "Gabriel? You in there?" she called, sure at this point that she wouldn't get an answer. If he was home he would have responded by now. She sighed, turning around to head back down the hall toward the elevator. She was feeling a little silly for her actions now, and hoping that Ocelot still wanted to see her that night. She didn't think she'd enjoy spending the night alone with her thoughts right now.
The voice in her head sounded foggy, like it belonged to someone who had just awakened from a deep sleep.
She stopped, surprised, and turned back around. "Is that you? Are you in there?"
"...What are you doing here? Is there.... something you want?" The fog did not seem to be lifting.
Now she was getting a little worried. "No...I just came to see if you were home. Are you okay? Can I come in?"
Silently the door swung open. Kestrel paused a moment, looking at it, and then stepped inside.
The huge golden dragon was sprawled out across the floor of the room, taking up most of the available space. Unlike most of the times she had seen him in this form, he did not appear to be worrying about knocking furniture around; in fact she noticed immediately that he seemed to have broken at least two sculptures, the pieces of which lay scattered across the floor near him.
Kestrel hurried over to him. His head rested on the floor, his eyes half-closed. "Are you—uh—okay?"
"Yes...just tired. It has been...a long night."
She glanced down at her chrono; it was barely 9:30. "Is there anything I can do? Or would you just rather I went away and left you alone?" Now she was really sorry that she had come up here, since he obviously needed his sleep. Maybe if she just waited until he dropped off again, and sneaked out...
No such luck. His eyes opened the rest of the way, their slightly luminescent purple depths regarding her with a combination of fondness and fatigue. "No—you needn't leave. You can—stay if you like. I warn you, though: I don't think that I will be much company."
"What have you been doing?" she asked, squatting down next to his head. "How did you tire yourself out so much? Still hanging around on the astral plane?"
"For awhile. I don't think I will need to continue, though."
"You've got a lead?" she asked hopefully.
"Yes." His tone sounded unutterably weary.
"Anything I can help with?" Aware that she was still squatted down and that her knees were not pleased with the position, she sat down next to him where he could watch her with one eye.
"No. There have been...new developments."
She thought that over. "Dangerous ones?"
There was a long pause. "Yes."
He never could lie to her, she knew. "Can you tell me anything else about it? Are you in danger now?"
"No. But I might be before this is over."
She realized that while he wouldn't lie to her, he probably wouldn't be telling her this much if he wasn't as tired as he was. "From—whoever killed your friend?"
"Do you know—who did it now?"
He shifted position a bit, turning his head so he could view her with both eyes. "Not specifically. But I have a better idea than I did earlier this week."
"But you won't tell me who it is." It was a statement of fact, not a question. She knew him that well: if he had planned to tell her, he would have done so already.
"No." Gently, he added, "This does not concern you, Juliana."
"Then...it isn't anybody I know?"
"No. Not...the killer."
"What does that mean?" she asked, immediately catching the odd turn of phrase.
"Nothing. I merely meant that you do not know the killer. I am certain of that. So you need not be concerned."
"But I am concerned, Gabriel," she protested. "If you're in danger, I'm concerned. You'd be if I was, so why should it be any different just because you're a dragon and I'm a human?"
"There is nothing you can do. In truth, I think that it would be best if we did not see each other anymore until after this has been dealt with. I do not want to put you at risk by involving you, even tangentially." His eyes were gentle and comforting, but nonetheless adamant.
She stared at him, then sighed, dropping her gaze. She wanted to protest, but she knew he was right. This time the situation did not involve her as it had the last time he had made a similar request. No one was bothering her; no one had murdered her oldest friend. She realized that this was not a normal situation—there was nothing she could do to help him, and if she insisted on remaining involved, she might succeed only in bringing more grief on him. "Okay, Gabriel. If that's what you want. But don't forget your promise. I'm holding you to that. If you need help, you'll ask for it, right?"
He nodded; his eyelids were starting to droop a bit. "I have not forgotten."
She looked at him for a long time, then rose and came over next to him. Reaching out hesitantly, she put her hand on his head, rubbing the ridge above his eye. "Do you mind if I—just stay for awhile now? I won't keep you awake...I just want to hang out here for awhile." She wasn't sure exactly why she didn't want to go, except that she was afraid if she did, she would never see him again. Right now that thought was more than she could deal with.
There was a rumble deep in his throat as he turned his head slightly to let her get a better angle. "You can stay if you keep doing that..." he said sleepily.
She smiled, continuing. "I didn't know dragons purred."
The soft rumbling did not cease. "It is said by some that cats are merely dragons in immature form."
"I believe it," she agreed. "You're both too curious for your own good." Cocking her head sideways, she added, "You guys don't get hairballs, though, do you?"
The rumble turned to a chuckle, mostly in her mind. "That is a very personal question."
"Shall I take that as a 'yes', then?" she asked, grinning. She was happy to see that he at least for a moment seemed to have put aside his vast grief. Maybe it was only because he was half asleep (I guess dragons get silly when they're half asleep too, she noted with amusement), but it had to be good for him. "Maybe that's what you need—a couple of cats to hang around here with you. You can—"
There was a knock at the door.
Kestrel stopped, stiffening, as her gaze shot up toward the other side of the room. At the same time Gabriel's eyes flew open, all thoughts of sleep or playfulness dropping away immediately. "Who's that?" Kestrel asked. "Are you expecting anyone?" If she had been thinking she probably wouldn't have asked the question since it was really none of her business, but she was keyed up with his talk of danger and murderers.
"Not...now," he said. Kestrel's hand dropped away from his head as he shifted form. For a moment his attention redirected as he stared at nothing, and then his eyes widened.
"What is it?" she asked quickly. "Something dangerous?"
"Dangerous? No—I don't think so," he murmured, sounding distracted. Without looking at her, he headed for the door. His expression was one of confusion, but not of fear.
Curiously Kestrel followed, trying to stay out of the way. Who would be visiting Gabriel now, at this time of night? She hung back against the wall, watching as he opened the door.
"Hi, kid," said the visitor. "Long time no see. How's it going?"
Kestrel stared. Standing in Gabriel's doorway was possibly the strangest looking individual she had ever seen.
He was an elf; that was pretty clear. Medium height, slender, with long auburn hair drawn back in a ponytail, he lounged indolently in the doorway, arms crossed over his chest, regarding Gabriel with an air of longtime familiarity. It was his face, though, that had drawn Kestrel's immediate attention: it was painted stark white, with two garish red diamonds surrounding his brilliant green eyes and a green triangle below his bright red lips. As she continued to watch, he pushed himself off the doorframe and uncrossed his arms; he was dressed in a long brown leather coat, faded jeans, and a black T-shirt with a British flag and the legend "The Who: The Kids are Alright—Tour '89" emblazoned across the front.
Gabriel did not seem taken aback by this visitor's appearance, although he did look surprised at the fact that he was here. "A long time indeed," he said softly. "You are far from home."
The strange elf shrugged. "Things to see, people to do. You know how it is. Work's never done. Are you going to let me in, or shall we stand here having our conversation in the hallway?"
Kestrel chose that moment to step out of the shadows. "Gabriel?" she said, coming up behind him.
The elf appeared a bit surprised to see her. "I didn't know you had company," he said to Gabriel. Then he smiled at Kestrel (it was a very weird smile, through all that facepaint) and made an exaggerated bow, sweeping off a nonexistent hat. "I can come back later if I'm interrupting anything," he added in a tone that suggested that he was going to do anything but.
Gabriel shook his head, looking as if he had for a moment forgotten Kestrel's presence as well. Making no attempt to introduce his visitor, he turned to her and said softly in her mind, "Juliana, please forgive me, but I must ask you to leave now. I must speak with this elf alone."
Her eyes narrowed. "This has something to do with—you know what, doesn't it?" she whispered, glancing back over her shoulder at the painted elf.
"I do not know. But I suspect that it does. Please don't ask questions now. If I am able, I will explain it to you later. Will you trust me?"
She paused before replying, looking him up and down. He was dressed in his usual light gray suit and purple tie, but she could see the exhaustion showing through in his expression and in the way he carried himself. "Of course I trust you," she said, still whispering. "But you said—before—that there was an elf—"
He shook his head. "I do not think that this is the same elf."
"But you don't know for sure?"
"No. Not entirely." He looked into her face, the deep violet depths of his eyes full of sadness. "But I do not think so. Please, Juliana. You must go now. I am sorry."
Kestrel looked at him, then nodded. "Okay," she said. There really wasn't much else she could say. Gripping his shoulder quickly, she turned and swept past the elf, who was back to leaning in the doorway.
"Don't worry," the elf said, sounding surprisingly comforting given his earlier flippant tone. "The kid's safe with me."
She did not reply. Somehow his words weren't much consolation.
Copyright ©1998 R. King-Nitschke. The Shadowrun universe is the property of FASA Corporation.
No part of this story may be reproduced without permission from the author.